Some years ago, me and my pal, the film-maker John McNaughton, visited Tokyo. It was one of those experiences that has stayed with me and opened my mind to Asian literature and art, and broadened my view of the world. It also made me aware of the long lens with which the East and the West view each other. How little we know of each other, and oddly. . .how alike we are. These are some of the thoughts I still have about this trip.
Li Po has been the best-known Chinese poet in Asia for about the last thousand years. He was a huge influence on the haiku poets, and is credited with being the seminal influence in the idiomatic languages of poetry and specifically, haiku. He was one of those wandering, searching poets who worshipped nature. Much like the Japanese haiku monk and poet, Basho, who would be born a thousand years later, he was so great a poet, that there are volumes of poems by other poets proclaiming their devotion to him:
Today I laid bare before you
all things stored in my heart.
are the final lines from an anonymous poet in a verse dedicated to Li Po. His poems are like an electrified arcing kite-string connecting him and Basho to modernist poets like Ezra Pound who was profoundly influenced by the writings of the Chinese poets of the 6th and 7th centuries, but in particular, Li Po.
One must remember that Li Po was a poet of what was considered the cultural age of enlightenment in China; the 300 years or so that constituted the Tang Dynasty. The greatest artistic attainments of this age were poetry. There were no playwrights or novelists; only poets; and there were poets up the wa-zoo. You couldn’t swing a cat without hitting one of the fuckers. As the quote goes, “If there was a man, he was a poet.” The Chinese held poetry in very high regard, and Li Po was the best of the best back then. When one reads Basho, one cannot help but realize the restraint and acuity of Li-Po hovering over the totality of Basho’s output.
That Basho was Japanese and Li-Po Chinese and were separated by a thousand years does not deter the idea of these two spirits being distant mirrors of the other.
My friend Beth Keegan taught Chinese for years at the Latin School and she is forever correcting me on the pronunciation of Li Po’s name. She pronounces it “Li BOUGH” and enunciates the second syllable as if it were two. Those who revere Chinese and Japanese writing are very protective of it. After reading Li Po, and Basho, I get it. They are cultural treasures; largely forgotten that, regrettably, nobody gives a fuck about any more. It’s a shame. There is such joy and earthy gratitude in Li Po’s, “To Tung Tsao-Chiu.”
And comlier still are the green eyebrows when the new
The beautiful girls sing anew and dance in robes of thin silk.
Li Po liked to get hammered on wine and write poems. His “Exhortations” (there were many) find their modern counterpart in poems like Baudelaire’s Get Drunk, in which the poets celebrate life’s rich bounty of wine, words and love. Li Po was not adverse to what he called “reckless revelry,” which is not to say he was not serious about anything. He, like Basho, was very devoted to nature and would tear up at the sight of the constellations. He was a sensualist and spent many days and years by rivers and under the stars. He was in awe of all of it. In his poems, he would state, “We never grow tired of each other, the stars and I.”
When you look into the ponds found in many Japanese parks and shrines there are always koi and carp. From time to time you’ll spot an almost translucent white carp, an albino of sorts, gliding like an aquatic white ghost. Japan and Asia, for that matter, are fairly lousy with ghosts. One of the most haunting spook stories is that of “The Hungry Ghost.” It pops up in Thai, Chinese and Japanese folk-tales and ghost stories. It goes that if one has led an unscrupulous life, he, or she, is doomed in the after-life to roam the world as a hungry ghost for 800 years. The Ghost is said to have a mouth so small that no food can fit in it. I’ve heard this story, or variants of it, many times. To wander, hungry, is thought to be the worst of fates. Perhaps this is because, all over Asia, starvation is a very real-world problem. In all of these folk-tales and parables, hunger is akin to madness.
My last night in Tokyo, I wanted to see a baseball game. Luckily, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows were hosting the Hiroshima Carp at Jingu Stadium. It was a beautiful night for a ballgame and Jingu Stadium has the feel of an old-time ballpark; the kind where people go to watch the game, instead of each other. There are no skyboxes or hundred-dollar box seats or any of that kind of horse-shit. It is a real ballpark.
There are a surprising number of Americans on both teams and one wonders how they wound up here. It is a different game in Japan. It is the very definition of “small ball;” the emphasis being on playing like a team. Hit to get on base. The most valuable players in Japanese baseball are the guys with the highest on-base percentage. There are also a ton of women fans here; not girlfriends who got dragged to the game, but real baseball enthusiasts who wear the hats and bang the plastic bats together with a rabid alacrity.
I and John McNaughton are the children of lifelong White Sox fans. Both of our fathers dutifully followed the Sox their whole lives without ever seeing them win it all. The closest they came was in 1959 when they lost the World Series to the LA Dodgers. We discussed our fathers in the cab on the way to Jingu Stadium. It seems like we almost had the same father; both men being hard to please and somewhat suspect of their sons’ chosen career paths. One of the reasons I came to Japan is my father’s having fought in the Pacific in WWII. He invaded Okinawa and witnessed a bestial, awful battle that forever colored the way he thought of the Japanese. I wondered, really, what this place was? Our countries did grievous injury to each other almost 65 years ago. Who are they now? And who are we?
Part of the answer came to me tonight. A man sitting next to us was wearing a Carps hat and, after a bit of conversation, told us the Carps were his hometown team.
I’m not used to thinking of Hiroshima as a place where people live. . .a community. . .but rather as the exclamation point of our war with Japan. Hiroshima was an action, not a place. Yet here we are, on a warm summer night in Tokyo talking with another baseball fan about our teams. He asked us about the Cubs. Of course we said “Fuck NO!” and he laughed. We explained that we were real baseball fans; White Sox fans. On this night, almost three quarters of a century after our country tried to erase this man’s city from the earth, I met a guy from the town of Hiroshima. He’s lived there his whole life and he likes baseball. He comes here for the same reasons I do; to try and remember what is good about where we live and who we are.
When kids are in high school, doodles usually adorn every surface of their textbooks; at least they did on mine. I loved scribbling on the back of my tablet, or in the margins of my history book, or just on looseleaf and in notebooks. Anything was better than listening to the teacher and taking notes on whatever useless drivel they were going on about. It could be anything: hot rods, planes, Rat Fink, giant dicks, monsters. . .especially birds, tits, monkey heads, and always band logos and comics. . .a character named “Bong-Man” and voice -balloons containing thoughtful utterances like, “Shimmy-shimmy beat my meat,” “Transistor Sister,” and “Maggot-Brain.”
I had a lot on my mind.
What I’ve most enjoyed about making my “Lunch Drawings” is just how much they remind me of those drawings I made trying to escape the mind-numbing dogshit they tried to teach me in school. With very few exceptions, my teachers talked like a roll of toilet paper; one bloodless, colorless factoid after the next, until I had annihilation fantasies about blowing up my high school.
I also had this problem of sometimes thinking something while not realizing I was also actually saying it until after.
One time one of the Christian brothers was babbling on about some treacle about one of the saints, whom I gave not a fuck about. There were some cool saints to hear about. . .Saint Heckta, a loony tune possessed of much feverish faith, who iced some idolators with a broad axe, just ran through the pagans like a crazy bitch, swinging and playing Whack-a-Mole with the unworthy. This guy only concentrated on the more acceptable self-loathing whackjobs with their hair shirts and self flagellation.
On and on in this monotone drone. Brother Leo was the prick’s name, and finally I just thought to myself, “Jesus…H…Christ…will you just, please, God, shut him the fuck up.”
I heard some titters of laughter before I realized that I had actually SAID it, and then it was off to the races. Brother Leo engaging in the not very saintly, nor even Christian, act of beating the holy snot out of me. Brother Leo was pissed. His face was as red as a baboon’s ass and he was spitting while he was yelling and swinging like a madman. And for some reason, I started laughing my ass off, which pissed him off even more. He screamed, “Oh, you think this is funny, Mr. Funny-man!!!” and that did it. I couldn’t control the laughter then. I was laughing so hard my nose was running and I was snorting and the only thing I could think to say was, “God, you’re a fucking idiot.” This only prolonged things and finally I got sent to the office where I started laughing again and got suspended.
They told me I couldn’t come to school for three days.
The history I was taught was a lie. The math, I can do with a calculator. The English lit was the boring shit only Catholic schools would teach.
I went to a high school with no windows. At least in grade school, I could look outside at the birds. This became my great escape, and when I drew them, it became even better.
Often the drawings wound up situated in the middle of the crazed and vulgar doodles that I made. I didn’t realize it was my subconscious telling me to broom the rest of this shit and just go somewhere and draw. Eventually I got it. Drawing birds and naked girls became my passport to what the nuns used to call, “Tony World.” I liked it there.
I could do whatever the fuck I wanted there. When I was drawing, nothing that the teachers, cops, or other pain-in-the-ass authority figures had to say meant dick. It was all a blur and I learned how to shut out the noise.
I didn’t know it then, but those drawings were a foundation. . .the rock on which I built my work.
I still hate authority. Hate bosses. Bullies. And still insist on doing precisely whatever the fuck I feel like doing. I still doodle all of the time; eventually it turns into drawings. I still get the same subversive charge out of it. I’m happy that it has allowed me to not have a boss or have to kiss anybody’s ass or answer to any of the swinging dicks. I’m happy that at the end of my pencil is another world and I get to go there, and if I want, stay there. . .with the birds. I got it made.
In Donna Tartt’s sprawling, Dickensian and luminously realized novel, THE GOLDFINCH, we follow the adventures of Theo Decker who, when we first meet him, loses his mother tragically and has been abandoned by his father. We follow his story from Park Avenue to Vegas to Europe, as well as the one precious object he has–a precious painting of a goldfinch which, in turn, reveals itself to be a dangerous possession with a backstory and narrative of its own.
Tartt’s language has a propulsive and mesmerizing energy that is just a joy to read. This book is why we read novels. I’m only about halfway through it and I don’t ever want it to end. It is gorgeous and vivid, much like the mellifluous, silvery trill of the goldfinch itself.
This is one of the most musical of birds and if you’ve ever heard one, you’ll not ever forget it. This is a European goldfinch, but its American cousin is every bit as lyrical and lovely as this bird.
I also included some more of the women singers who I’ve most loved over the years– and I am still missing some–Patsy Cline, Lorretta Lynn, Lynne Jordan, Grana Louise,and Wanda Jackson come to mind as well as Joan Jett–I guess I’ll have to make a third…
As a kid, I remember the Baltimore Orioles had a devastating pitching rotation that included Jim Palmer and Mike Cuellar, the best third baseman in baseball, Brooks Robinson, as well as the other Robinson, (the slugger)Frank. They also had the unbelievably fast,Paul Blair, in the outfield. My friend, Vince Keuter, the poet says, “Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water– the rest of it is covered by Paul Blair.”
They were an exciting team and one that, thankfully, wasn’t the Yankees, or the Dodgers, or the Red Sox, or the Cardinals. . .or any of the other teams that routinely came to town and beat the holy dogshit out of the Cubs and Sox.
Baltimore is an odd city; the kind of place where a guy named “Boog” can be a superstar and the deliriously odd and wonderful John Waters can be an auteur. It is a town of square pegs and the plucky oriole is a perfect bird for this place. It is a fruit-eating, gorgeous, gregarious bird that I, once in a great while, see in Chicago, usually around berry and fruit trees. They are intensely beautiful and cannot be mistaken for any other bird. You mostly find them in the eastern part of the United States.
I always loved the old Orioles ballcap with the whole bird on it; the one Hoyt Wilhelm wore when he was the ace fireman of that team. Somehow I knew when I decided to make a Baltimore Oriole that this drawing would somehow turn into an avian tribute to that great team. Any ballpark that can have Boog Powell next to his sandwich stand (BBQ sandwiches) talking with fans is doing something right.
The common starling or European starling was introduced to North America a couple of centuries ago by enthusiasts of Shakespeare. That’s right, Shakespeare. I had to read that twice, myself. Evidently, the Bard was fond of the plucky bird’s gift for mimicry and a bunch of blue-bloods thought it would be jolly-good fun to have the little winged gangsters over here. The first thing the common starling did was muscle as many songbirds out of nesting spots as it could. It spread wildly, becoming one of the most successful species in the history of the continent. Particularly hard hit were bluebirds, who were pushed damn near across the Mississippi River, population wise. They are just beginning to come back now.
The common starling is a striking bird that gives off a metallic sheen of purples, reds, greens, bronzes, and bright yellows when the sun shines on its plumage. They are hearty and boisterous and given to spectacular flight when in large flocks that often result in “murmuration,” which often makes the sky itself appear to be changing shape. It is something to see thousands upon thousands of starlings moving as one shape-shifting organism.
At my feeder every morning the starlings are usually here first. Though they prefer berries and insets, the ywill suck down some seeds as well. They are improbably beautiful and tough little bastards. They are much like Irish brothers, in that they know the best way to win a fight, is to bring a crowd.
Every once in a while, the young woman who works for me will have her ear-buds in and be singing one of her songs. She records under the name, “Czesha,” and she sings a trip-hoppy blend of rap, soul, and surprisingly melodic pop. Think Beyonce-meets-Massive Attack. It’s very danceable and while it is not my usual taste, it’s good and I’ve grown to like it. This kid works hard. She’s a talented visual artist as well and every day at 4:30, she runs off to the recording studio or to her studio and it is a heartening thing to observe. At 25 or 26, it’s all in front of her. Her career will become what she makes of it. It is an exciting time in one’s life.
She brings to mind the music I listen to every day and how much of it is made and sung by women. From Billie Holiday to Neko Case, each voice contains its own aural reliquary of sounds, secrets and stories; and I need all of them. Each of them evoke a different kind of picture out of me. Each of them bathe different words and feelings in light and I realize what a rare instrument the human voice is.
It never fails to astound me how Aretha Franklin can hurl her voice around the planets, or Kelly Hogan can conjure the sweetness of Harold Arlen’s, “Tis Autumn,” or how Annie Lennox, with her wounding, perfect, upper register can will us into feelings we don’t really want to have. The song, “Why” can make me bitch-up at the drop of a hat, or Emmylou Harris’ aching rendering of “Wrecking Ball”…I could go on and on. And when I flesh this out into an article, I will.
This one is for all of the Women who’ve made songs such a holy thing.
This in one of those forever affected by the sad events surrounding its creation. In the middle of making this piece, I learned of the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, one of my favorite actors. The performance that has stayed with me the most was in MAGNOLIA, where he played a hospice worker trying to help a man who is at death’s door, reconnect with his son. There is such ache, compassion, and kindness in this work, it has become an indelible testament to a great talent.
His was a talent of stillness, understatement and great empathy; the idea that kindness could be strength. Godspeed Mr. Hoffman. Your every performance was a great lesson to lesser actors, which is to say, all of us.
About 10 years ago, a few days before Xmas, I spotted one of these birds right outside of Marshall Fields downtown,on top of a mailbox. The birders reading this will shake their heads. This bird at that time would have no business being there,or damn near anywhere south of the Arctic Circle. I was astonished. It could not be a mistake; no other bird looks like this one. I looked around and realized, I had nobody to tell. Cell phones (or at least mine)didn’t have cameras yet. So I just stared at it.
People shoving by me in the bustle of Xmas shopping. . .there was a guy dressed like a Dickens elf pimping hot chestnuts about 20 feet away, and this bird. . .staring around. I wanted to be able to stop the whole city in its tracks and point him out; shout at the top of my lungs, “There is a snow bunting in the middle of downtown Chicago! This is really fucking RARE! Christ, go buy a lottery ticket. This is a sign!!!”
Still, nobody knew it, except me and the bird. And not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of that bird. That maybe it is my grandmother. . .a visitation of sorts, or my father, or the many dead friends, or more likely, just a lost bird that crossed paths with the right guy who needed to be reminded of life’s magic and circumstance. What Paul Auster once called, “The Music of Chance.”
Maybe it was that.
There was an event the other night at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, just north of the Zoo. It was in celebration of the publication of my friend Joel Greenberg’s fascinating natural history account of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, A FEATHERED RIVER ACROSS THE SKY. It is a remarkable book about the squandering and wholesale slaughter of a single species.
In 1840, there was a description of a single flock of passenger pigeons so huge and in such great volume, it took three days for this one flock to fly over. The estimate is something like three billion birds. So many that the sky was darkened; a phenomenon reported on many other migratory paths as well. It is almost unfathomable that these birds would ever NOT be in the world. A scant fifty years later, they were gone. The last one, “Martha,” died in captivity in a Cincinnati Zoo; having never flown or even been in the wild. It is almost impossible to believe that this hearty species, a bird that could swallow acorns whole, could be wiped out in such short order.
There were “pigeon shoots” where, for days on end, yahoos with birdshot would blow them out of the sky and lure them to blinds and blast them at will, with no bag limit. One could kill as many as one could carry. They were often thrown to their pigs as a cheap food source and served in restaurants as squab.
The only grace note the extinction of the passenger pigeon affords us, is that the idea of the conservation of endangered species came to the forefront. The idea that the bounty of species this country was so blessed with might NOT be endless.
Greenberg’s book is a detective story, cautionary tale, and natural history of a species we decimated perhaps because its outsized appetites were too much like our own. This book is every bit as vital as Rachel Carson’s, “SILENT SPRING.”
A couple of years ago, while my friend, the painter Jenny Scobel was in town, we ran across what we thought was a dead bird in the street. We stopped and Jenny went out to pick it up. It was a beautiful bird that looked to be some kind of woodpecker. While holding the bird, she jumped for a second as she realized the legs and wings were beginning to move, and then the eyes opened. Not only was the bird not dead, but the plucky little bastard wanted to fight. She wasn’t quite up to flying yet, as we’d put her on the ground and she just kind of hopped as though drunk. It seemed she was still in shock. After bringing her back to my studio, a consultation with a bird guide helped identify her as a yellow-bellied sapsucker, which actually is related to woodpeckers.
What amazed me is just how beautiful this bird was. The reds and yellows and black and white and ochres really knocked me out. I’d never held a songbird before, and had not ever realized how fragile and tough they are at the same time.
Our best guess is that she’d flown into a windshield and knocked herself out and she was by no means ready to re-enter the wild yet. She’d have been easy pickings for some cat (fucking cats) or coyote.
We found a bird rescue operation and within 30 minutes, a humorless woman with a bird bag walked through the door and gently placed the wounded bird in the bird-sack. She eyed us suspiciously, I assured her that the bird hadn’t bounced off of our windshield, and she gave me a suspect look and wordlessly left the studio. I guess all of her excess personality and compassion is reserved for her feathered friends.
This encounter made me serious start looking at birds again. I’ve been fascinated with them since childhood and I rigged some bird feeders in the back yard. Every morning is a miracle. Sometimes 30 different species of songbirds show up at my feeder–sparrows, juncos, blackbirds, finches of every kind and here and there, the odd warbler, as well as cardinals. I don’t know what it is about them that makes me so happy, gives me such peace and fills me with such wonder. Perhaps it is the idea that nature isn’t something a hundred miles away; that it surrounds us and makes city life more bearable and beautiful and wondrous–and it doesn’t cost you a thing.
Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”
For a woman who didn’t get out much, she knew her stuff. I’m betting she had a bird-feeder.